Friday, February 26, 2016

the brain and the hands.

A reader asked the following question that may interest others as well.
I read some years back (in a text that I can no longer put my hands on) that there are specific spots in the body beyond the brain that are in and of themselves locations of brain function. This physiological support for the value of our efforts to encourage the use of one's hands and body to learn in ways that pure intellect cannot alone achieve would seem to be an area of interest to anyone supportive of your work so elegantly explored in your Wisdom of the Hands blog.

Are you familiar with this science, and can you direct me to some authoritative sources? I would love to share with our school administrators. I am fully supported in the growth of our woodworking classes -- I just like to continue to learn and grow in the area, and I think some science would be interesting and persuasive to others.
I am not familiar with that specific bit of research but I think that a fundamental problem made in science and scientific research is to take things apart and then forget how they are put together. As stated eloquently by Frank Wilson, the hands and brain comprise a learning system that co-evolved simultaneously in direct response to each other in the development of our species. If you look at the serial output on your computer, you don't care exactly where the actual processing is taking place, but simply that the data goes in and comes out in a useful form. Trying to get a handle on the hand-brain mechanism is like trying to watch what's on TV with your eyes closed. But it has long been a subject of fascination. Robert Keable Row, in his book, The Educational Meaning of Manual Arts and Industries, 1909 wrote an extensive analysis of the "development of motor control" that you might find interesting as much as indication that at one time researchers attempted to plumb the depths of the relationship between hands and brain, whereas now, researchers are mainly concerned with activities within the brain as an almost isolated organism.

While I am not familiar with recent research on the hands and brain that suggests that there are different locales for processing outside the brain, there is research that suggests very strongly that practice creates neural pathways that allow the hand/brain system to function at greater efficiency.  In this research, pianists, beginning and advanced were told to play a series of notes on a paper keyboard, while they were in a fMRI machine that could observe and record brain's electrical activity. The differences between the beginning and more advanced pianists had to do with the efficient movement of electrical activity in the brain requiring fewer neurons. It seems that fMRI research has the potential of showing us what goes on inside the box but the brain is not an isolated organism and must be explored through its relationship to the world through all its sensory apparatus.

My own study indicates that set and setting are important factors in cognitive processing. For example in my illustration above, deliberate processing in the brain notes and assists the muscular positioning and repositioning of the grip, prior to cutting, just as a pianist might adjust the bench, adjust his or her seating carefully on the bench, his or her feet on the pedals, his or her posture and his or her hand positioning on the keyboard before striking the first note. If understood in the right light, these are all part of the cognitive processing, in that they ease the flow of electrical activity in the brain, as well as to and from the brain.

Unfortunately, in this age of fascination with the brain, the hands and senses have been neglected. The best research seems to be coming from the study of music, and there had been a database for research called Music Bird created by Richard Edwards. The links to that site no longer work.

In any case, just as we needed to have study of the brain to better understand the human organism and how to teach best, we need further study of the hands' relationship to learning. We must focus our attention on more than just the minds of children to develop their intelligence, because each child is of necessity, part of a larger environment than that contained only within his or her own head.

Make, fix, discover for yourself, create, and extend the love of learning likewise.


  1. Hey Doug,

    What about the notion of finger-blindness... As I recall, developed by a neuro guy? (I heard about him from you, but the name escapes me...)

  2. Matti Bergström is the brain researcher who came up with the term finger-blindness. Unfortunately, much of his work was not translated from Finnish. But google Matti Bergström or copy and paste the name in the upper left hand search function of the blog. The search function is an excellent way to do more in depth digging for subjects I've covered before.